World's tallest wooden skyscraper planned for Vienna; city's fire service concerned

Image: Rüdiger Lainer + Partner.

Unlikely as it sounds, wooden skyscrapers are a thing these days. As we noted last year, concerns about the environmental impact of steel and concrete are driving some architects and designers back to wood as a more eco-friendly alternative. There's already a nine storey tower built from specially laminated timber in London, and a 12 storey wooden building under construction in Bergen, Norway. 

A planned tower for Vienna, however, is due to leapfrog both in terms of scale and height. The HoHo project in Vienna's Seestadt Aspern area will feature two wooden towers, the tallest of which will stretch to 25 storeys and 84m. The towers will be 76 per cent wood; Kerbler, the firm behind the designs, claim the material will produce 2,800 tonnes of CO2 when compared to a similar sized tower built from concrete.

However, according to the Guardianthe plans didn't go down so well with the Viennese fire department. Christian Wegner, spokesperson for the department, said:

A few of us were upset because it was crazy to present an idea like this that has not been discussed with everyone yet.

They have to carry out special tests on the correct combination of concrete and wood. We also want to develop a more fail-safe sprinkler system. I expect they will pass the tests but if they develop the building as they say they will, it will be a serious project.

The fire service is now working with the architects to ensure the building meets safety standards. If all goes to plan, construction will begin later this year, and should be completed in 2016.

Despite the fire service's hesitancy, the tower's height shows that planners and designers alike have a growing faith in the safety of timber structures. In the UK, it was against planning regulations to build a timber structure above three storeys until the early 2000s, when safety tests showed that taller timber structures could meet the same safety regulations as concrete or steel ones. Recent tests in Canada, meanwhile, have shown that timber treated in the right way can resist heat and flames for up to three hours.

Daniel Safarik, editor of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, says resistence to wood-based construction stems from a lack of understanding around the materials on offer: 

[The Vienna project] will encounter some of the same issues as other structures in obtaining approvals, mainly that the local fire codes are often predisposed against wood as a material, due to the combustibility of traditional stick framing.

Cross-laminated timber panels, however, are quite thick and develop a “char layer” that allows them to support the building for several hours during a fire – just as concrete or masonry would. Most of the buildings we have seen proposed are not “pure” wood structures anyway. Many use some combination of steel, wood and concrete. In general, the arguments in favour of wood construction are strong. 

In summary: building giant towers out of wood is actually much safer than it sounds. 

 
 
 
 

Five ways in which the rest of the world can avoid the homelessness crisis plaguing the US

Housing for all. Image: Nicobobinus/Flickr/creative commons.

Homelessness is a growing problem in the UK, where the number of people sleeping rough has doubled since 2010, yet it is dwarfed by the scale of the issue in the US. More than 500,000 homeless were found across the US during just one night, compared to the UK’s 2017 count of 4,751. Changes in the definition of homelessness and flawed methodologies suggest that the true number for the US could be anywhere from 2.5 to 10.2 times greater.

Millions more live in overcrowded or slum housing, forced to choose between the damage that poor conditions do to their physical and mental health, and the street. All of the US’s housing issues – from foreclosures to evictions to poor conditions – hit communities of colour the hardest.

This is due to a legacy of discrimination, which continues to undercut any commitment to safe and decent housing for all residents, whether in the private or public sector. In my recent book, City of Segregation, I explain how the long, violent history of creating spaces for the white and privileged classes is embedded in a number of practices, which continue in US cities to this day.

Exporting inequality

As private developers and investors seek out urban land in major cities around the world to secure their fortunes, real estate patterns and practices developed within the US are increasingly being observed elsewhere.

In cities as diverse as London, Sydney and Durban, community groups which have been working for decades to improve their neighbourhoods languish with little public or private resource. Meanwhile, developers create spaces for foreign investors and new residents, who anticipate certain protections and privileges such as greater security, high quality amenities and neighbours with similar interests and backgrounds.

This is a driving force behind rising evictions and the criminalisation of homelessness, alongside gated communities, hostile architecture, “broken windows” policing with its focus on prosecuting activities such as graffiti or jaywalking and the growing privatisation of public spaces through regeneration.

But there is still time for other countries to choose a different path. The UK, in particular, can build on the legacies of the post-war political consensus that all residents should have access to quality housing, and its acknowledgement of institutional racism and some history of government anti-racist campaigning.

Both legacies should be improved, but a renewed commitment to a programme of housing and anti-racism are central to increasing equality, prosperity and well-being for all. Based on my research, I’ve come up with five steps which the UK and countries like it can follow, to ensure that future development reduces – rather than drives – homelessness and inequality.


1. Build social housing

Unlike the US, the UK acknowledges a right to a home, and within living memory provided it for a huge swathe of British society. Social housing – whether in the form of traditional council flats, cooperatives or community land trusts – provides a variety of housing types and keeps rents from rising too far beyond wages.

When social housing is widely available, it makes a huge difference to people who – for one reason or another, and often through no fault of their own – become homeless. With social housing to fall back on, homelessness is a temporary condition which can be safely resolved. Without it, homelessness can become a life-destroying downwards spiral.

2. Preserve and expand community assets

Severe segregation in the US stripped entire communities of access to quality food, jobs, education, green spaces, services, banks and loans. Poverty is endemic, and can easily tip into homelessness. While far from perfect, the UK’s post-war commitment to universal provision of services, such as education and health care, and building social housing across all neighbourhoods underpinned a surge in upward mobility.

This achievement should be salvaged from the damage done by Right To Buy – a policy which sold off social housing without replacing it – and austerity, which has prompted a sell-off of public assets and land, as well as the closure of childrens’ services, libraries and community centres.

3. Decommodify housing

A market geared towards building apartment blocks for the portfolios of investors who will never live in them cannot produce the kind of housing and neighbourhoods which residents need, much less at a price they can afford.

While London has been badly affected for some time, this trend is now spreading to other areas of the UK and Europe. Local and national governments must act to prevent global demand for housing as investments from driving prices beyond the reach of those who need real homes.

4. Build communities, not walls

Gates, bars, armed security and homeowner restrictions are all ugly traits of private housing developed within the US context of desperate inequality and racism. The UK has a long and vibrant tradition of community development, creating a supportive built environment and social infrastructure of schools, libraries and other municipal services for residents.

Community assets. Image: Helen K/Flickr/creative commons.

This kind of development, and the social mobility and growing equality it fosters, safeguards public health and safety – not big walls, barbed wire and security guards. The private rented sector in the UK should be regulated to bring it more in line with Europe, where tenants prosper with security of tenure and strong regulation of rents and rent increases.

5. Raise your voice

Those who are bearing the brunt of our current housing crisis must be at the centre of efforts to change it. From tenants’ associations and renters’ unions, to campaign groups such as Justice for Grenfell, it’s vital to support those voices advocating fairer housing rights.

This also means rejecting austerity’s constant cuts to public services, funding social support for physical and mental health and ensuring that homes are safe, decent and secure, to create a safety net for those who are working to improve their communities.

The Conversation

Andrea Gibbons, Researcher in Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies, University of Salford.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.